In an age when our emails and websites are monitored; when companies can tell where we shop, what we buy and how much we spend; when CCTV and mobile phones can track our every movement; when the law tells us where a cigarette can be smoked, the very notion that we live in a free society can sometimes seem incredulous.
Today, freedom is an endangered concept. It is threatened in subtle ways … ways that were never even conceived just a few years ago. However, there is no doubt that when we look back on history it is clear to see those times when the removal of freedom was a lot less sophisticated … times when physical barriers were the means to control people’s movements.
Those blatant attempts to restrict society’s liberty were fought against valiantly, whether it be the segregationist policies of America’s southern states in the Sixties or the equally overt confinement of people by Communist East Germany in the same period and beyond … these were moments when people had the courage to say ‘no’ and to risk their lives for a future free of oppression.
Those who fought to secure freedom through racial equality have been recognised, but those others who lived in the dark confines of oppressive East Germany and who risked all to break free deserve a little more time in the sun and should be celebrated by us all for their brave actions.
It is 24 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall – a structure dividing East and West Berlin which became a symbol of Communist coercion.
Many, though, risked their lives to break free. Over the 26 years that the Wall stood, hundreds of people escaped, not allowing such things as minefields, attack dogs, concrete, barbed wire and gun-toting soldiers to impede their flight to freedom.
The means of escape were often ingenious. Some, like Horst Breistoffer, became expert at it. He bought a tiny car, which he modified to allow a person hide curled up in the space once occupied by the battery and heating system. Breistoffer managed to smuggle nine people into the West before he was caught.
Tunneling beneath the Wall was another popular means of escape … so popular, in fact, that it was not uncommon for tunneling gangs to charge huge sums to sneak people out of the East.
There were others, too, who forsook profit and organised tunneling operations out of a sense of idealism, to spirit people from under the noses of their Communist oppressors.
The Becker family fell into that category. Clara Becker was a widow who raised six children. Her house stood directly on the border separating East and West Berlin. With six young adults living there, Clara’s home became something of a magnet for other young people in the neighbourhood.
As they watched the Wall being erected they knew that if they were ever going to flee then this would be the time. The Beckers and some of their friends decided to tunnel out. Using hammers, shovels and pickaxes, it took the diggers three days just to penetrate the basement wall.
Battling cave-ins and knowing they would face death if captured, they kept digging, until, finally, 28 of them managed to crawl to freedom into West Berlin on January 24, 1962.
Others took similar risks. In 1964, Wolfgang Fuchs spent seven months leading a gang in the construction of a 140-yard tunnel, which stretched from an East German bathroom to a basement in the West. Over 100 people used it to escape.
Another successful tunnel was started in an East Berlin graveyard. The idea was simple but effective: ‘Mourners’ went to a grave and then disappeared underground. The plan worked perfectly until East German guards discovered a pram left by the ‘grave’ and promptly sealed the tunnel.
But perhaps the most daring escape involved the families of Peter Strelzyk and Guenter Wetzel who, for months, collaborated in their basements to build a hot-air balloon.
Their wives stitched together curtains, bed sheets, and scraps of fabric to make a 65x75ft canopy. A flamethrower and gas burner were then used to pump hot air into this makeshift balloon. Incredibly, the plan worked and on the night of September 15, 1979, the families floated to freedom with just enough fuel to take them over the Wall.
These remarkable and ingenious acts of bravery should never be forgotten. They celebrate the human spirit’s will to survive and our innate desire for independence … a desire that has written our history for millennia.
Free will is such a fragile concept. It should be nurtured and guarded jealously. Instead, we watch it being eroded on a daily basis. Perhaps we should all follow the example of those brave souls from the Sixties and say ‘no’ just a little more often and a little more loudly.